Ronnie Scott’s All Stars Quintet
Connaught Theatre, Worthing
Thursday 18th June, 2015
“Music is the real way of speaking: all the rest is filling in time between gigs”.
Against a constant visual backdrop of old Soho, this band carry with them an almost mythical quality, but in introducing classic tunes and images made famous by their predecessors, who were some of the most groundbreaking personalities of their time, they are also quick to laugh at their own legendary status in order to keep their audience entertained. The lives of the club founders, Ronnie Scott and Peter King, unfold before our eyes. The problems that jazz musicians seem to have in making contact with the world as it is, is told in affectionate detail and always with humour. Monochrome figures, the faces behind some of the most famous tunes of the twentieth century; scenes of 1950s and 1960s London and giant menacing photographs of the Kray Twins flickered on a large film screen as the Ronnie Scotts Allstars Quintet recounted, to a curious South Coast audience, the musical history of the famous jazz club which is their home.
The five-piece was this evening in its original lineup: James Pearson on piano, Sam Burgess on bass, Alex Garnett on saxes and trumpet, and Chris Higginbottom behind the drum kit. Garnett returns to replace the charismatic Pete Long, now performing with big band Echoes of Ellington. The Allstars ‘ previous incarnation with Long as frontman was very different; this show feels a lot more personal as Pearson introduces each number with the story behind it.
Film always adds an interesting dimension to live performance, here serving to bring the story of Ronnie’s alive, with touches like the band coming on stage playing the theme tune to the film “Alfie”, written by Sonny Rollins, with prints of old club programmes on the screen behind them. To this, Garnett’s poignant brass section gives added evocativeness. Pearson darkens the mood by highlighting the reality of the entertainment industry as it was in those days, saying that when business was good, the club attracted a lot of interest from unwanted quarters, when rival gangs the Kray Twins, the Richardsons and the Maltese Club began to vie for the attention of the management. When the Kray Twins turned up at Frith Street and told Ronnie to get into their car, to say he was unwilling was an understatement but in fact they showed him a basement in Knightsbridge , Esmeralda’s Barn, and asked him how he liked his new club!
We are told how Ronnie was able to bring over Miles Davis, who played there in 1969, and the band’s interpretation of “Milestones”, with its bluesy intro of of trumpet, bass and cymbal percussive accents, further heightens the atmosphere. On the Sonny Rollins-composed pieces, the erudite sax solos of Alex Garnett, a true musician’s musician, really come into force It is in watching Garnett play this evening, that I suddenly connect with realising that correct and beautiful form and line are just as important in music as as they are in painting or sculpture. Garnett arcs his sax lines like the curves of a Giacometti bronze: a real treat to watch.
As the last notes die away, an image of Buddy Rich, looking like a boxer, suddenly flashes up behind Chris Higginbottom,who sets up a tom-tom style drum sound as the intro for “Cute”. Higginbottom, sporting a tall 50s quiff and sharp black suit, draws peaks and troughs of dynamic sound from his kit in a spectacular drum solo in true Rich style, for which he receives tumultuous applause. The drum solo is a really important feature of the show and it also points up Higginbottom as a player of considerable control.
On a whistlestop tour of club history, we learn how Ronnie first started the quintet with Dick Pearce, surely the only aspiring trumpet performer at the club who when asked to send in a demo, sent Ronnie a recording of his daughter washing up; how an angelic young Stan Getz was an early star brought from America; Alex Garnett shows us Ronnie’s original sax.
The band then launch into beautifully uplifting compositions like Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” before we learn how the club hosted the first live performance of “Tommy” by The Who in 1969, Princess Margaret is a regular visitor with Peter Sellers, and Jimi Hendrix plays his first ever live gig there in 1967. George Melly, after playing his first Christmas run in 1973, stays for another twenty-five years., Ella Fitzgerald sings at the club in 1974. After Ronnie Scott receives and MBE in 1981 and the business is brought back from financial ruin in the 1990s, it reopens under new management in 1993. There are images flashed on screen of Ronnie flying a grand piano over the Matterhorn by helicopter.
The purpose of a show like this seems twofold: to show audiences the heritage of jazz and to show how that needs to be taken into the future. But over and above the anecdotes , the essence and spirit of true passion for music of this band shines through.
Reviewed by Jasmine Sharif